From Peer to Leader: An Interpreter’s Tale

In a recent conversation with a good friend, he asked, “So, how’s work?”  He asked because he has witnessed my struggle through the transition from interpreter to supervisor of interpreters.  It has been rough.  Like anything else, there was a learning curve.  My answer to his question offered a moment of self-awareness: I’m over the learning curve.  Not done learning, but done with the roughest time, on the level part of the curve, where the “curve” looks more like a horizontal line.  I actually know what I’m doing.  I can catch my breath.  And it occurred to me that I might offer something to other former interpreters who are now leading interpreters who used to be their peers.

It’s confusing, transitioning in to a leadership position.  Because it’s a promotion, so you’re supposed to be all, “Yay, I got a promotion!”.  But’s it’s really hard.  It makes you cry.  Sure, sometimes interpreting makes you cry, but at least you have other interpreters to cry to.  When you’re new in a leadership position, you can consider yourself lucky if you have an office with a door (I do, thank goodness) so that you can cry without anyone seeing you.  So, I’m inspired to write some tips for my brothers and sisters who are walking the steps I walked a couple of years ago.

  • Don’t take it personally.  I have heard this a million times throughout my life, and I never truly understood it till now.  This means that everything is not about you.  Once I understood that everything that everyone is not making a personal assault on me, things got a lot easier.  There would be days when it seemed like every. Single. Interpreter. Was late or sick.  I would think, “They’re all late and sick because I’m a terrible boss and they want to torture me!”  No, they’re all late because people are late.  Sometimes people get sick.  Sometimes they’re all late and sick at the same time.  It has nothing to do with your self worth or with your competence as a leader.  So pour another cup of coffee and chill out.
  • Find a mentor.  For me, this was easy, but key.  My boss used to hold my current position, and was happy to guide me through everything I needed to know.  To me, there have been two huge benefits of having her as a mentor: Having someone to vent to confidentially, and having someone to role play tough conversations (like explaining to someone why they can’t all “just learn English”) before I have to have them.  There are a lot of emotions to be worked through in leadership before you go out and make decisions,  especially if you’re an INFJ like me (knowing your personality type is helpful, too).  It helps to work through those emotions first in a safe place.  And I can’t emphasize this enough:  Do not ever do this with your staff. Do not share confidential information about other staff.  Never.  Ever.  It is one of the fastest ways to break down relationships with them.
  • Get out of your office and spend some QT with your peeps!  Again, I cannot emphasize this enough: Spend quality time with the people you’re supervising or managing.  Understand what motivates them.  Understand how they learn.  How they like to receive feedback.  I’m “busy”, so at first, I felt like “just” spending time (what I saw as “hanging out”) with staff was a time-waster.  No way.  This is actually the very best use of your time.  We call it “relationship building”.  It’s not a joke.  Makes everything easier and happier.  For your staff and you.
  • Make it fun!  Notice what energizes you and then dedicate energy to doing that!  I love, love, love interpreting and I was so sad for a long time after taking my supervisor position that I “wasn’t an interpreter anymore.”  No way!  I thought I didn’t have time to go out on the floor and interpret.  But when I started making time for it, I found that I was more energized in everything I did.   I found that I became more efficient, because I had more energy, because I was doing something that really energized me.  See how that works?
  • For the love of language access, take care of yourself.  I used to feel selfish about doing things for myself.  Now I realize that, just as when I do things that energize me, when I do things to take care of myself, I’m so much more productive.  If you’re taking care of yourself, you can take much better care of your staff.  And your staff need you.  You know that.  Interpreting is a tough gig.  They need someone with big shoulders to listen to their stories about the interpretation for the family conference to send a loved one to hospice.  About donating a family member’s organs.  About telling a mom that they didn’t find a heartbeat.  Your staff are going through their own personal issues outside of work.  They need you, and the only way to be there for them is to take care of yourself first.

So, what was the answer to my friend’s question that inspired me to write?  “How’s work going?”

“It’s amazing.  It’s so good.  I get to be a mentor to all of these interpreters.  I get to do presentations about interpreter services and educate people on equality in health care.  I laugh so hard at work every day.  We’re having so much fun.  I used to feel so sad that I wasn’t a full-time interpreter anymore, but now I realize that I’m supporting the work of 25 staff interpreters, so it’s like doing the direct patient care work I used to do, times 25!”  The answer a year ago, even six months ago, looked very different.

That was my inspiration for this month’s post.  I was expecting it to come from a meeting with my colleagues, from interpreting, from training interpreters, from all the usual stuff that inspires me to write.  From something outside of me.  But this time, it came from a most unexpected place: Me.  Interpreters, leaders of interpreters: Be inspired. Inspire yourselves, and you will inspire others.

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